I gave my son one last hug, just to hold him a little bit longer. Then, I kissed my daughter goodbye with tears in my eyes.
They are embarking on an adventure—and I’m not invited. They are headed to sleepover camp. My eight-year-old daughter is going for 12 days, and my 11-year-old son is away for an entire month. (My 14-year-old is at a different program already for the next three weeks).
You are either a camp person or you’re not. When I tell non-camp people that my kids are away for weeks on end, I can see that they are shocked. I see the judgment, the bewilderment—sometimes I even get asked why I would want to do that, as if I was sending them to a work camp instead of an exciting adventure.
I don’t do it for myself. Sure, for the first time in 14 years I don’t have to go grocery shopping and my work day does not end abruptly at 3:10 p.m. I can walk around the house naked. I don’t need to do laundry. I can lie in bed as long as I want and I don’t have to slice anyone’s fruit or wonder if they’ve taken their Vitamin D for the day. I don’t need to turn on the stove. I’m responsible for myself, the dog and, tangentially, my husband.
As good as that all sounds, that’s not why I send my kids to sleepover camp. They go because it’s good for them to be away. Yes, it’s good for kids to be away from their parents sometimes. They can make their own decisions, develop new skills, and grow up so much in a such small amount of time that it can make your heart break.
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My middle son waits all year for camp—it’s his happy place. It’s somewhere that he can shine. At camp, he is a leader. He takes care of the kids who are homesick, he leads in the fun activities, and he pushes himself to try new things. He came home last year with a note from the camp director calling him a “modest leader.” Isn’t that lovely?
My daughter is tireless. At school they complain that she can’t sit still on the carpet and listen to the teacher. She doesn’t think she’s good at school. But at camp? Her boundless energy and social skills get approval everywhere she goes.
But it’s my 14-year-old who needs camp the most. He’s on the cusp of big things, but sometimes he lets anxiety win out. Being at camp shows him that he can be on his own and make good (and bad) decisions that he can learn from. I can’t wait to see how this latest experience will change him.
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Every kid gets something out of sleepover camp. Even if they hate it, there are some general lessons to be had, including:
• How to get along with people when there is only one toilet: How do you manage the bathroom situation with strangers? This will normalize the situation with even the most anxious child.
• Comfort in the water: Swimming lessons every day makes for better swimmers. Falling off the sailboat and “gunnelling” teaches you not to be afraid.
• Living without micromanaging parents: There is a lot of structure at camp, and a lot of freedom, too. You are one of many, and parents aren’t there to handle every situation.
• Finding skills you didn’t know you have: Canoeing, orienteering, friendship bracelets, archery, tie-dying, telling ghost stories, being the kid that everyone turns to when they are feeling sad. Who knows what secret talent is waiting to be awakened?
• Handling homesickness: Every kid has a period of feeling homesick. Learning that the feeling eventually passes will enable them to become resilient people.
• Dealing with new—and possibly bad— food with no other options: You get what you get, and sometimes you need to clear the table, too.
• True Canadian skills: Canoeing, portaging, roasting marshmallows, being comfortable enough to pee in the woods. Need I say more?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a parent is that I can have a life without my kids being around 24/7. I’m not ready for them to be adults yet, but camp is a start in the process of letting go as a parent. Though thankfully, it’s only for a few weeks of the year.
I can’t wait for them to come home.
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